Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Salt and Civilization

There is an invisible line, somewhere between Hindoostan and Siam, where one civilization gives way to another. One is the Indo-Vedic civilization and the other is the Sino-Asiatic. We today think of India as a country, but in fact it is an entire civilization now partitioned, unhappily, into nation states. It embraces the Republics of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and various disputed territories between and on the fringes of these. Travelling eastwards, there comes a point where we become aware of being in a different civilization altogether, one characterized – to generalize the point - by Chinese rather than Indian influence. Certainly, there were times when the Indian world pushed further into East Asia, and there are instances of Chinese influence in and around the Indian sub-continent – the present writer has just spent a month in Cochin on the Malabar coast (the “-chin” suffix of which probably signifies the historical Chinese community there), but there are all the same two distinct realms, two different orders that together constitute the greater East. 

There are many significant differences between these two civilizations, the most obvious being the place of Boodhism in each. While Boodhism began in the Indian world, it found its home – strange to say - in the Sino-Asiatic one. It thus unites the two worlds and yet distinguishes them at the same time. Travelling eastwards from the sub-continent – or northwards over the Himalayas - Hindooism eventually gives way to Boodhism and suddenly you are in a different yet related spiritual atmosphere. The change is palpable and concerns everything from manners and customs to aesthetics and clothing.

There is a more tangible but less often noted difference too. At a certain point in the transition the cuisine changes and suddenly, without fanfare, something begins to make its appearance upon the tables of restaurants - a small bottle of soy sauce. It is nowhere to be had in India. Beyond a certain point eastwards it becomes ubiquitous. And it signals a major shift in the constitution and the flavors of foods. More specifically, it signals a new relation to salt and saltiness. This is not to say that salt is not used in Indian cuisine, but it is not used as a flavor – only at a catalyst for other flavors. There is no salt to be found on dinner tables, and salty condiments such as soy sauce are conspicuously absent. In eastern Asia, though, the salt shines through. Foods become deliberately rather than incidentally salty, and nearly every savour dish is accompanied by salt-laden soy sauce and/or a range of salted pickles and condiments.

The present writer only noticed the absence of salt in India towards the end of his six month sojourn there. He had long noted the way in which Indian foods are, finally, unsatisfying. He also discussed this with other Europeans along the way. What is it about dal and rotis, tandoor and aloo gobi, and all the rest, that leaves us unfulfilled? Make no mistake: Indian food is generally delicious. But after a while it fails to be deeply satisfying and even the most hardened traveler starts to crave for a European breakfast, bacon and eggs, toast and butter. Eventually, it becomes plain. The difference is salt. There is, of course, as already stated, salt in Indian food, but there is no salt flavor. It is hidden by spices: cumin, coriander, chili, tumeric. Salt is rarely if ever allowed to stand on its own. One takes salt in Indian food, of course, but one rarely experiences it. And in the end, this leaves the occidental man yearning. It is a relief to finally cross that invisible border into eastern – which is to say Sino- - Asia and to be greeted by wok fried vegetables and noodles, or even better seaweed, made palatable with salt and soy sauce. 

At one point in his travels the present writer met up with an old friend who was now living in India. Although immersed in aspects of Hindoo spirituality he seemed unsatisfied with Indian life, and most especially Indian food. His solution - this writer observed - was to sprinkle copious amounts of salt upon his curries. Other long-term residents in India are able to better adapt. Adaptation largely concerns one's ability to adjust to a different salt regime.

Nor is it just a matter of taste. No. The way in which a civilization orders the human consumption salt has deep and profound repercussions. It is no trivial concern. Human beings need salt, of course, for the most basic biological functions. But more than that, there is a deeply esoteric dimension to salt since it is the only directly mineral element in the human diet and so it defines our relation to the mineral realm. By extension, it defines our relation to the solid, the impermeable, the eternal. Different social organizations of salt are conducive to different mentalities and spiritual temperaments. We cannot expound upon these things in full here – it is a subject of alchemical significance about which there is a large and ancient literature – but it is very obvious, in practice, to anyone sensitive to it. Different civilizations compose themselves by different salt regimes. It is one of the most fundamental things that a civilization does. It produces different mind-sets, different ways of thinking and being.

There is a history to this. Primitive man, for example, seems not to have yearned for salt. In many early languages there is no such word. This is probably because primitive man consumed large amounts of blood. With the cooking of meats and a more expansive vegetable diet, however – things which accompanied the advent of civilization – it became necessary to supplement the diet with salt. How this was done became one of the identifying marks of particular civilizations. It is noteworthy, for example, that some civilizations (and some religious codes) introduced a taboo on drinking and eating blood. This is not only to draw a line against primitivism and barbarism but it also insists upon the social organization of salt. ‘Thou shalt not eat blood!’ means ‘Thou shalt mine and trade in salt!’ This becomes a crucial, defining, question in the organization of whole civilizations.

Again: it is not merely a biological issue, nor even a sociological one. The civilized man has a particular relation to salt, and this produces a particular mentality. Salt, as the alchemists insist, is intimately connected to our thinking processes. Thinking is a concentration. Thinking, in a sense, is a hardening. Salt is the physical correlative to the rise of this faculty in the human species. This is to say that salt – the way we use it – is a defining characteristic of the whole psycho-spiritual constitution of civilized man.

Certainly, Indian civilization has a very different psycho-spiritual make-up to Sino-Asia, and one of the reason is that it has a different salt organization. Gandhi once famously marched to the sea and made some salt in defiance of the British salt tax. Salt is among the sacred things that one may give as gifts to a Brahmin. Salt is smiled upon by the Hindoo gods. No one is supposing that salt is unimportant in India. But for all of that, India is not actually a salty civilization. The Indian temperament – like the Indian palette – is sweet. The Indian taste is for milk. Milk, not salt, is primordial to the Indian. Whereas, there is traditionally no place for milk in the Sino-Asiatic diet nor much appetite for the sweet in general. Rather, in Sino-Asiatic civilization, salt is primordial; the diet is typically high sodium and there is a passion and a yearning for salt. These differences extend far beyond the dinner table; they translate to substantive differences in mentality and temperament.

This has been very obvious to this writer as he has travelled from India eastwards in recent weeks. One enters a different civilization. There are many ways to describe and characterize the differences that can be experienced and observed, but the different salt regime – which is to say, finally, a different relation to the mineral realm, which is also to say, paradoxically, a different relation to the sacred – is one of the most fundamental of them.


Harper McAlpine Black

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